Tiger Woods returns, Jason Day prevails, J.B. Holmes stalls, Haotong Li stuns and more in this week’s redeye edition of Monday Scramble:
In the most highly anticipated debut of the new year, Tiger Woods not only made the cut at one of the most difficult regular-season stops on the PGA Tour, but he climbed into the top 25 after shooting all four rounds at par or better.
It’s just the third time he’s done that since his last victory in 2013, an encouraging sign after so little competition the past few years.
The goal was to play four rounds and test his body, and in that sense, absolutely, the week was a resounding success. But watching Woods up close last week, there is little evidence to suggest that he’s ready to be a regular contender anytime soon.
Though his short game and putting showed plenty of promise, his long game was in such disarray that he set a career-low mark for fairways hit and never found more than 12 greens per round. Other courses, including his next start at Riviera, won’t be so forgiving.
Can Woods win again?
Sure, in time, if he stays healthy and drastically tightens up his game. But for now, it’s best to keep expectations low: He plays a limited schedule on demanding courses against the top fields.
The road ahead is long.
1. It’s best to break down Woods’ return like this:
• He remained upright. That was a major question mark heading into the week, even after his encouraging performance in the Bahamas last month. How would Woods handle hacking out of the thick, juicy rye grass at Torrey Pines? Turns out it wasn’t a problem. At all. Despite missing 70 percent of his fairways, Woods never so much as flinched while taking a few mighty lashes out of the rough, and he felt strong enough to practice after his rounds. A great sign for his surgically repaired back.
• His short game. Woods said one of the biggest misconceptions about his back injury was that he’d be able to work more on his short game than his full swing. The opposite was true, because it hurt more to bend over and address the ball while chipping and putting. That’s not the case anymore, and he clearly was sharper on and around the greens than he has been over the past few years. (The chip yips appear, at least for now, to be in remission.) That Woods took extra time during his practice rounds to hit putts and try different shots out of the rough paid off, too. Said Brandt Snedeker: “His short game is probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”
• His heart. Does Woods still have the desire and determination to compete at age 42? He offered a resounding answer last week. Even without anywhere close to his best stuff, he pulled off some incredible short-game shots and sank a few clutch putts to make the cut on the number. Shooting 2 under on the weekend, while finding just six fairways total, was a master class in grinding.
• His patience. Woods might be the only one who seems content to let the process play out. Despite the chaos that constantly surrounds him, he seems happy, reenergized and at peace in his latest comeback. There is such an urgency to declare that he is back, or that he’s going to win again, but golf doesn’t lend itself to instant analysis. He acknowledges that he’s very much a work in progress, and it could take all season, or longer, before he figures it out.
• His driving. There’s no way to sugarcoat: It was dreadful. He had a two-way miss, and some of his tee shots were off-the-planet bad. Woods chalked up his errant driving to his ever-evolving “feels,” but it’s clear that he needs to continue to tinker with his equipment. (He switched from the TaylorMade M2 to the M3 over the seven-week break.) His 30-percent clip was the worst of his career, and his absence of a go-to shot is worrisome moving forward.
• His iron play. Woods’ driver put him in some awful spots off the tee, but even when he did find the short grass he struggled to hit the ball close enough to the hole, ranking in the middle of the pack in proximity. His wedge play was particularly poor, and only on the last day did he have good distance control with his irons. Not every tournament is going to be a grind-fest like Torrey; he needs to be able to make a lot of birdies, and he won’t with iron play like that.
2. Day desperately needed a reset in 2018.
Last year was the most difficult year of his career, not only professionally but personally. On the course, after beginning the year as the world No. 1, he plummeted outside the top 10, lost confidence in his two most important clubs (driver and putter) and split with his longtime caddie Colin Swatton, who has been a father figure to Day since he was a teenager.
He didn’t find much relief off the course, either. His mother was diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year, leading to a tearful withdrawal from the WGC-Match Play and months of listless play, and at the end of the year, his wife, Ellie, announced that she had suffered a miscarriage with the couple’s third child.
Better days are ahead.
All in the family. pic.twitter.com/9bn4xpXYff— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 29, 2018
3. Day’s inspired play at Torrey, which culminated with a birdie on the sixth playoff hole Monday to put away Alex Noren, was a reminder that he’s too talented to go months without contending. When he’s on, there isn’t a shot or moment he can’t handle.
He’ll be a force – as long as he’s healthy.
4. So … about that. Day’s back continues to be a problem.
Two weeks ago, he underwent an MRI after throwing out his back in Palm Springs. He was still in such rough shape at Torrey Pines that he withdrew from the Wednesday pro-am and didn’t think he’d be able to play. Swinging and walking around uncomfortably in the cooler temperatures, he started sluggishly with a 73, then heated up with rounds of 64-71-70. He was helped immensely by the 80-degree weather Sunday.
Day said that he’s looking into making changes in his swing to relieve some of the pressure on his lower back. When his back goes out, as it did a few weeks ago, he experiences burning pain down both legs. Not good.
5. Still think Noren is just another flash-in-the-pan European player?
The nine-time European Tour winner recently cracked the top 10 in the world ranking, but that still didn’t convince many American golf observers that this late bloomer (he didn’t even win in three years of college golf at Oklahoma State) was the real deal.
There should be no questions now, after Noren nearly won in his first start as a Tour member. He stood tall in difficult conditions Sunday, and he only bowed out after his 3-wood on the sixth playoff hole came up short, in the water, effectively ending his chances.
Noren is known among his peers as one of the hardest workers in the game – these horrifying pictures of his calloused hands are all the proof you need – and he’s finally pushed himself to the brink of the game’s elite.
6. What’s up with all of these playoffs? This is the third consecutive week that the Tour had a multi-hole playoff.
From 2002-17, there were two playoffs that went six or more holes. In the past three WEEKS, there have been two – Day's marathon and Patton Kizzire outlasting James Hahn on the sixth hole at the Sony Open.
The trend might not end soon, either. There has been a playoff each of the past two years at the Phoenix Open. That’s bad news for sports fans, of course, since the action bumps into the Super Bowl.
7. It’s rare to see PGA Tour players criticize their peers, but that’s exactly what happened Sunday when J.B. Holmes brought the final round to a screeching halt with his 4-minute, 10-second standoff with his caddie in the middle of the 18th fairway.
The debate centered on whether to hit 3-wood (long) or 5-wood (short), and in the end he chose a 7-iron layup in the rough, believing that his best chance to make eagle and tie was to hole a wedge shot. (Shocker: He did not.)
Yes, these guys have a lot at stake – money, world-ranking, FedExCup and Ryder Cup points – but to take four minutes making that decision, WITH THE CO-LEADER OF THE TOURNAMENT WAITING, was one of the most egregious 72nd-hole icings this scribe can remember.
8. Holmes, of course, did himself no favors afterward. Last year, when Jordan Spieth took forever to play the 13th hole at Royal Birkdale because of an unusual ruling, he apologized profusely to playing partner Matt Kuchar for the holdup. Holmes offered no such apology.
When asked whether he regretted taking that much time to make his decision and impacting Noren’s second shot, Holmes sniffed: “No, I was still trying to win.”
Already tagged as one of the game’s slowest players, Holmes’ reputation took another massive hit Sunday.
9. Rory McIlroy’s Revenge Tour made another stop last week in Dubai, where he finished second.
It was his second week in a row in contention, though this one probably stung more than his T-3 in Abu Dhabi – on Sunday, he was two clear with eight to play, but stalled the rest of the way, allowing Haotong Li to pass him on the back nine.
“If someone had told me at the start of the year you’d finish third and second in your first two events, I would have said I’d take that,” he said afterward. “But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult.
“The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.”
McIlroy is 40 under for his first two events of the year. He will tee it up again in two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
10. That’s not to take anything away from Li, the 22-year Chinese star who is becoming a force on the world stage. He birdied four of his last six holes to steal the title – even more impressive considering the player he chased down.
Last year, Li surged up the leaderboard at The Open, after a final-round 63. This victory, over McIlroy, against a strong field, should boost his confidence even more. He is now No. 32 in the world.
Five days later, and we still don’t really know who was at fault in the bizarre situation that unfolded at last week’s Bahamas Great Abaco Classic.
Depending on whom you talk to, Rhein Gibson’s caddie, Brandon Davis, either did or didn’t pick up Gibson’s ball in a hazard on the 18th hole of the Web.com Tour event.
Gibson received a one-shot penalty (and lost $12,000), chucking his putter headcover at Davis and firing him on the spot.
Suspiciously, Davis went on a media blitz to share his side of the story … and then a Web.com Tour official publicly disputed that account.
Here’s what we do know: Caddies will think twice about working for Gibson, and Davis will have a hard time finding another gig.
This section was MADE for incidents like these. Seriously: WTH?
This week's award winners ...
Trending Upward: Ryan Palmer. Winless since 2010, Palmer was the first to drop out of the playoff at Torrey Pines. Considering all he has been through recently, however – his wife, Jennifer, undergoing treatment for breast cancer, having shoulder surgery and needing to play well to keep his card via a major medical – he wasn’t about to sulk about another close call.
Opening Stumble: LPGA season. Brittany Lincicome won the LPGA’s season opener in the Bahamas, which was reduced to 54 holes because of high winds. The 2013 edition of the event was shortened to 36 holes because of inclement weather. Paradise, we think not.
Best Of Luck: Guy who distracted Tiger. An angry mob seemed to descend on the visor-wearing dude who blurted out, “Get in the hole!” while Woods was making his backstroke on an 8-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole Sunday. Apparently there's no need for marshals when fans police each other.
Sources close to Tracker say that fan has been escorted to the Pit of Misery.— GC Tiger Tracker (@GCTigerTracker) January 28, 2018
Death, Taxes and …: Charles Howell III at the Farmers. His tie for sixth at Torrey was his fourth consecutive top-20 there, and his eighth top-10 in 16 career starts. ATM.
Didn’t See That Coming: Jon Rahm. One shot back after two rounds, on the verge of becoming world No. 1 with a victory, Rahm backed up on the weekend with rounds of 75-77, eventually finishing in a tie for 29th, behind even Tiger Woods. Now he doesn’t even have a chance to claim the top spot this week in Phoenix.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rickie Fowler. Maybe we should have known better, since the Farmers ambassador doesn’t have a top-60 here since 2013. Apparently, that history was more telling than his recent form, because he exited early again, with rounds of 72-72. Sigh.